Murujuga, Mosul and the new Vandals: who are the worst?

Upwards of a million petroglyphs in a landscape almost as old as time
Upwards of a million petroglyphs in a landscape almost as old as time

The understandable outcry and revulsion felt in the face of the mindless vandalism by lunatic jihadists against the beautiful and old – by European standards – artworks at Mosul, prompted me to resurrect this piece, written for a US site some years ago. Goose-stepping in formation with the lunacy prevailing in the Middle East, Australia still sanctions the ongoing destruction of art that was already ancient when the rest of the world was discovering agriculture.

Australia is an old place, so ancient that mountain ranges once as high as the Himalaya have been worn to nubs. At just under 7310 feet, Kosciuszko, the highest mainland peak, is a mere hillock by world standards, while on the other, older side of the continent, in Western Australia’s Pilbara where there are rocks almost as old as time, Mt Meharry reaches to a mere 4100 feet, flattened by the weight of millennia and slumped under a sun so fierce as to be unimaginable to most folks in the northern hemisphere.

Beautiful Mulga Downs - part of the Pilbara landscape
Beautiful Mulga Downs – part of the Pilbara landscape

Ancient also is the culture of the people who occupied Australia’s mainland 2000 or more generations give or take before Europeans were even aware of its existence – so long ago that their stories tell of climate change, generations of great cold, long ages of dreadful drought and the disappearance of species. Their folk-beliefs accurately describe the inappropriately named “Hobbits” whose skeletons have been excavated on the Indonesian island of Flores – the Yuurii is just one name for them.

The first Tasmanians – once believed to be of a different race – had reached the far south of the continent by at least 40,000 years ago, 32,000 years before rising sea levels separated them from relatives on the mainland.

Poems by Denis Kevans
Poems by Denis Kevans

So long have these people inhabited the old brown land that whenever a documentary on the human migration “out of Africa” is shown, their epic history is usually mentioned only briefly, relegated to the too-hard basket. Their still-living culture is as wonderful and mystifying as the Universe itself, embracing a complex philosophy and with a kinship system so complex that a prominent anthropologist once said that any European who claimed to understand it fully was “almost certainly lying”.

Their origins, they say in English, are in the Dreaming, a past, present and future governing everything existing in the Universe. A rock can represent an ancestor and/or the ancestor in person and/or the result of an action by an ancestor, and so must be sung appropriately to ensure the continued order of the cosmos and everything within it. The people are the country and the country is the people. Failure to sing the country at appropriate times results in chaos: the breakdown of social structure, the disintegration of complex ecosystems, the failure of rains or extreme weather events at inappropriate times. When an Aboriginal laments misfortune brought on by cultural breakdown he will cry “poor fella my country”, for he and his country are one and the same: “poor fella my country, poor bugger me”, ‘country’ and ‘me’ being two words for the same thing

These people are custodians of stone arrangements, earth mounds, bora grounds and artworks so old and with messages so fraught with meaning that they defy the European imagination. In the east are the paintings of giant Kwinkan beings; there are carved  trees – many of which were deliberately destroyed by opponents of Land Rights legislation; you can find giant river red gums that as saplings had limbs bound together so that they would grow into huge circles high in the branches, like openings in the sky, making the base of the trunk a safe and appropriate place for women to give birth.

In the west are the awe-inspiring Wandjina, who in the Dreaming established the weather patterns of the north-west then implanted themselves in the rock faces they inhabit today. It has been claimed that their “haloes” represent aliens’ space helmets, explaining why no mouths are to be seen on the figures, but the people whose job it is to sing them disagree. When asked about the absence of mouths, a custodian once replied: “What would they have to say to humans?”

Also in the west is what is now known as the Burrup Peninsula and its 88 sq km of ancient rock engravings or petroglyphs – up to possibly one million of them. Forming Earth’s largest collection of rock art, the most recent of which are at least 10,000 years old, they are now under threat of almost total destruction by the industry that brought you the disasters of Ok Tedi, Deepwater Horizon and almost numberless other acts of vandalism large and small.

Burrup is the site of huge, new industrial development including gas hubs to serve the North-West Shelf and other projects, and a fertilizer plant of huge proportions. What survives the construction process – and much has already been destroyed – will almost certainly be hugely affected by acid fall-out from these plants.

Of course the mining industry is not solely to blame. Equally complicit are State and Federal governments and the people who have allowed their elected representatives to transfer power to the miners. So cowed are the miners’ lickspittles that in the year I left Western Australia, siteworks were being permitted at Burrup while yet another “committee of inquiry” was sitting. There are other places for the factories and less intrusive alternatives, but why bother when they have governments to do their bidding?

In the face of huge protests, Amax Iron, and CRA in 1980 drilled on a sacred site at Noonkanbah, Western Australia,  after the State Government provided their oil-exploration rig with a police escort for its 1000-mile plus trip through the outback. The well was dry but that wasn’t the point. They showed they could fly in the face of public opinion, of legislation and of ethical and spiritual values and have the support of government while they did it.

Almost immediately after Shark Bay received World Heritage listing, the miners sought – and got – permission to “explore” for minerals on its very edge. The same at Ningaloo Reef, a whale-shark hotspot and fringing coral reef off the north-west coast. It’s listing for World Heritage has been opposed because local businesses claim it won’t help tourism. Apparently World Heritage listing should enable vested interests to make more money rather than protect natural wonders and great human works. I feel the hot breath of the miners here also. They told us a couple of years ago that they wanted to drill for oil on the edge of the reef and are so clever that they can do so with no ill-effects whatsoever.

Why? To prove their power, that’s why. Mining interests have opposed Aboriginal Land Rights legislation since it was introduced in the 1970s and through its toadies in governments continues to have it overridden in some cases and ignored in others. Environmental laws mean nothing to the miners. Why should they? Governments are only too happy to change them or adopt “temporary suspension” of protection measures to suit their interests

When Native Title was being argued in the courts, Western Mining, led by Hugh Morgan, published a map purporting to show how much of Australia would be closed to miners if Aboriginals were given land title. Some 30 years or so later, John Howard – who with Western Australia’s Court dynasty was among the mining industry’s greatest assets – was brandishing the same map to show us the extent of the “land grab” if he were not to alter legislation that had given the greedy Aboriginals title over some of their traditional lands.

It’s all very well to give the Indigenous peoples title over land we took from them in the first place as long as it really is of no use to us. But if there’s minerals on it, it’s a different story and the miners should be allowed to run seismic survey lines all over the place. Who cares if they turn into erosion gullies? It’s only worthless scrub anyway – only good for blackfellers. Unless it’s got minerals in it of course, then it’s a valuable natural resource and the government can’t allow a noisy minority – egged on in past times by Red agitators and now by white Greenies – to act against the best interests of the vast majority of decent, sensible Australians.

And so I return to Murujuga, as Burrup is properly known. Its destruction is up there with the destruction of the libraries at Constantinople and Alexandria, Mosul, and the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan. When it is gone then there can be an argument mounted in favor of almost any act of vandalism. Why not put a bulldozer through the Louvre or St Peter’s and replace them with theme parks? Monuments to human endeavor will count as nothing and the wonders of nature…well really? What wonders?

Perhaps some day – and one day soon I hope – the Wandjina, no longer able to remain silent, will leave the ancient Dreaming sanctuaries to visit a dreadful judgment on the destroyers of the ancient places and bring some sort of peace to the land as old as time. But I fear it may be too late.

An introduction to a passion


I’ve kept pigeons of one sort or another off and on since I was about 13. Even in my nomadic years, if I looked like being in one spot for more than a couple of months I’d put together a small flock to keep my hand in.

Why? Because I like them, I suppose is the best I can offer in this brief introduction to a passion. People keep them for all sorts of reasons – some are hooked on racing them, others like to show them, still others enjoy the high-flying or aerobatic varieties. Me, I’ve always liked tumblers, aerial acrobats that do flips of various sorts while in flight. But I also like pigeons for the romance associated with them; the images they conjure up. They were domesticated long before the horse was tamed in Europe and were being bred for special attributes at least contemporarily with ancient Mesopotamia – famous in ancient times for its white ‘doves’. (In the strictest sense, the words ‘dove’ and ‘pigeon’ are interchangeable, the former coming to us from the Germanic languages, the latter from Latin via Old French. These days, however, dove is used mainly to describe the smaller members of its large tribe – except by poets who prefer it over pigeon on every occasion.)

Pigeons were carried with the caravans that plied the Silk Road and traded along the way. The ancient cities of Bokhara, Lahore, Damascus, Istanbul, Iskenderun and others are commemorated in the names of pigeons that first came to the West from them, sometimes carried among the chattels of returning crusaders.

There are pigeons bred in bewildering variety: for their voices; for their speed, endurance and ability to navigate over hundreds of miles; for their plumage; their aerobatic abilities; their colour – and yet they all share many common traits. They are intelligent and affectionate to their keepers, whom they recognise by their facial characteristics, and feral pigeons will remember for years the face of someone who once fed them.

I once produced and edited the magazines of Australia’s National Pigeon Association and its US counterpart, and was commissioned by Ivy Press (UK) to write the text of a small coffee-table book titled Beautiful Pigeons. Among the more exotic breeds I have kept re Dewlaps – originally from the region around Syria – and Szegeds, a breed introduced to Hungary by the “Moors” and bred for its ability to fly above its loft at great heights for an extended time.

These days I have Iranian Highfliers, an attractive breed from ancient Persia bred to fly at great heights over several hours, occasionally tumbling as they do so.Some have a sharp crest at the nape of the neck, others have plain heads.

If you’d like to learn a little more about what Andrew D Blechman called “the world’s most reviled and revered bird” follow this (intermittent) blog. If not, then forgive us pigeon keepers our passion – it takes all sorts as my Grandmother would say

…and it’s got worse

Parts of this piece were originally published under the title Back home to what? on a now-defunct blogsite. I wrote it almost in despair on arriving home after five years in Stamping Ground, Kentucky.

KENTUCKY, that beautiful, down-in-the-dirt poverty ridden State is now behind me, along with the bloody minded bedlam that is US politics and the shadowy, home-grown militias and aggressive Christians who wield power and influence out of all proportion to their numbers. It wasn’t all Thompsonesque of course. The jist plain folks that were our friends and neighbours were wonderful, some of them devout Christians, but unlike the moral minority kept their faith for church and home. There were the music and food nights that did the rounds of our friends’ houses – Kentucky cooking may one day kill you, but it’s something else I tell you. In the next holler to ours there were a fiddle player, an extremely gifted songwriter/singer and a guitarist vocalist who was also the local pharmacist. Just up the road was another guitarist whose voice and singing style reeked of the mountains where he was born. Every weekend we would get together to eat and sing and play: guitars, fiddle, autoharp, banjo, dulcimer and whatever other instrument might turn up along with the wild and beautiful harmonies that seem to be genetically imprinted in most of the mountain people.

Kentuckians love a good yarn and one of my favourites concerns a hamlet up in the hills whose residents had been waiting months for a new minister to shout the gospel, bury the dead and save the young folks from sin by marrying them. Word got out that there was a new man on the way, heading for the house of Cletis MacFarlane, a pillar of the community. One hot afternoon, Cletis was ploughing the tobacco patch on the bottom land when his oldest son came racing down the mountainside: “Paw, Paw, the new preacher’s done come to the house.”
“What ‘nomination do he be, son”
He hain’t a said, Paw.”
“Well son, y’all git on up the hill to the house quicker’n get out and ask ‘un. If’n he’s a Baptist, hide the whiskey; if’n he’s a Methodist, hide the ham; and if’n he’s an Evangelical, y’all git up on your Ma’s lap and don’t move till I gits there.”

When I arrived back in Tasmania, it was only to be confronted by a late blast of winter and a far bleaker election result. What astounded me about the campaign was some of the policy ‘promises’: Turn back the boats, abolish the mining and carbon taxes, wind back the NBN and on and on. All tainted with the same ideology as espoused by the US Tea Party, a bunch of intelligent nut-cases and misfits yearning for 1950 and given an unwarranted respectability by media networks afraid to report objectively for fear of ratings reprisals. Abbott’s “This is our country and we will decide who comes here” was almost word for word for statements made at Mad Hatters’ rallies in the US.

I was also puzzled by the Julia Gillard TV chat with Anne Summers. Ms Gillard’s rise to PM was unreported in the US and I only knew of it when I did my monthly rounds of the Australian online news sites. She is obviously very popular – more widely so than she was given credit for, it seems – so who allowed her to be stabbed in the back? Was there an uproar? Was the Labor Party told that it had done the wrong thing? It seems not. During the campaign, Rudd was as smug as a rat with an umbrella and even her former supporters seemed to take the drainpipe exit: “It was for the good of the party.” From what I could glean from my distant perch, Julia Gillard was the subject of the same sort of institutionalised abuse aided and abetted by Murdoch’s shit spreader that Obama copped in the USA, and for many of the same reasons: different, attempting to do the right thing, ignoring the naysayers and putting bills on the table that outraged the Gina Rhineharts and her ilk – the born-to-rulers.

Back to the NBN for a while. Abbott (he’s not worth a title) and his cronies obviously wanted to sell it off to another provider and go for the cheapest and quickest option – and it was also pretty obvious that they were more than a little motivated by wanting to get rid of anything that might be seen as a legacy of a woman who had made them look fools by showing them up for what they are. Stupid.

What I experienced in the US has more than ever convinced me that Australia should head back on the course it once started unless we want to emulate the States and settle for appalling internet and phone services – unless you live in a major city and even then it’s not too flash. A couple of years ago, a survey found that a shade more than half the population had access to high-speed internet and of those who did, in 40 per cent of cases it could not technically be classed as true broadband. Less than 30 minutes from the State capital and about 40 from the second largest city I was paying $80 per month for a satellite link that delivered half the speed I paid for, dropped out every time there was heavy rain and delivered slower times than I get from ADSL here on the outskirts of a small Tasmanian town. The satellite TV cost $80 a month and also couldn’t cope with heavy rain (common in Kentucky) while the phone – a shaky landline and antiquated exchanges that played up in wet weather – cost $60 for basic service under which calls to the same area code could be treated as long distance in some areas. There was no mobile coverage.

A lot of things in the US are mired in the 1950s, including politics, social attitudes and attitudes to religion. Though a little over half the population classes itself as “no religion” or “other”, the religious extremists and the mainstream churches hold sway at all levels. The US is also, generally speaking, a very prudish country and for me all these factors marred an otherwise wonderful time. Yet now Australia is rushing headlong down the slope that will land us back in 1945 or even earlier. It is beyond comprehension.

Nurture by numbers: an inexpert view of children

These older relatives (c. 1930s) and kids of my generation were pretty much left to their own devices.
These older relatives (c. 1930s) and kids of my generation were pretty much left to their own devices.

Before I get underway, let me say that my childhood shouldn’t be taken as typical for every Australian kid of my generation. I’ll also admit that times have changed since I was fighting against becoming a grown-up. And I suppose I’d better whack in a disclaimer: these are personal views formulated over many years spent in all sorts of places among all sorts of people and not the result of valid scientific yibberda, yibberda, yibberda…

So, in my usual fashion, I’ll start this long-winded – though hopefully not boring – story by approaching it widdershins. Don’t hold your breath while your waiting for me to pick up the thread.

In the social strata occupied by my family, and thousands of other families like us, it was far from uncommon for older relatives to share houses with younger ones who had the space: a spinster aunt, the love of whose life did a perish with the 10th Light Horse in Egypt, a grandparent slipping into dementia or perhaps an eccentric uncle who “went a bit funny because of the Great War”, often living in the “sleepout”, a section of verandah converted into a small bedroom.

As a general rule, most of the rest of the extended family lived inside an hour’s walk from one another or were easily reached, relatively speaking, by public transport. Cars were scarce and any rellies wealthy enough to own one regularly and religiously did the rounds of others in the clan. This sort of family structure provided young mothers with not only a pool of babysitters, but also a vast storehouse of accumulated knowledge and wisdom from which to draw. Doctors were an expensive luxury and an experienced aunt or gran knew the difference between a bad cold, the croup and whooping cough, say, and between the gripe (love that word)) and wind, between need and tantrum. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was all the good old days and anybody that says it was has a lousy memory. Vaccination wasn’t the norm and babies (and adults) died from things you hardly ever hear of these days. My family copped diphtheria, polio and scarlet fever along with the ‘usual’ mumps, chicken pox, measles, etc. How our parents got us physically through to adulthood in an era when anti-bacterial wipes that kill 99.9 per cent of household green cartoon characters were unknown is a mystery to me.

So when did parents stop raising their own offspring and hand the job over to experts?

I reckon the trend began when home births began to wane, accelerating as families fragmented and moved apart. Delivered by Great-Grandma Ada I was born at home, not unusual for the time but certainly not as common as it had been a generation before. A bit of trivia: I was born with my head sort of scrunched onto a shoulder, so Great-Grandma put me in warm ashes and massaged me for an hour or so. By the time my first sister was born, (conceived when the Old Man was home on leave en route from the battles in the Middle East to the South Pacific campaign) hospitals were angling for a monopoly on the baby business and the experts had the boot of scientific theory firmly planted in the door and Bertie Germ loomed large in life.

Littlies were taken from their mothers almost as soon as they were born – “Don’t want the little chap exposed to nasty germs now, do we, dear?” –  and placed in the nursery where, behind a glass partition, regimented rows of wheeled cribs, like shopping carts from some god-awful baby Woolworths, confined tightly wrapped infants in the process of being conditioned to The Schedule. For about the first week, sires, siblings and relatives were only allowed to peer at the hygienically incarcerated youngsters through the glass, gauze-masked nurses holding them up for inspection at allotted times.

Mothers were told that crying was good for babies, it developed their lungs, and so it wasn’t necessary to pick them up or feed or change them every time they bawled. No indeed, baby must learn The Schedule: eat, pee, poop, sleep and associate with Ma by the clock. Breast-feeding was a bit of a worry, too. Was it hygienic? Could baby catch germs by this too-close association with the mother? Grandmothers and aunts whose experiences led them to contradict these scientific truths were seen as dangerous heretics and, even worse, old-fashioned, and I suppose with a lot of the men away the younger, first-time mums must have felt awfully vulnerable and open to coercion. The experts were gaining ground.

By the 1950s the social structure I grew up with was vanishing as post-war reconstruction saw families split into smaller units, spreading far and wide. Parents lost that pool of knowledge, that back-up, and so began to turn to the experts. Some time around then, the disciples of the experts responsible for The Schedule were telling us that discipline was a Bad Thing, children should be free to express themselves at all times and in all ways. Chucking a deepy on a department-store floor was seen as fulfilling some primal need rather than a leg-weary kid’s reaction to being told no, she couldn’t have the three-storey dolls’ house. “Reason with the child,” they told the parents. Reason with a Tasmanian Devil’s changeling? They had to be joking.  Perhaps the experts should have explained the theory a little better, for its adoption by many parents had far-reaching consequences. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

My youngest son at about 4 years old actually survived exposure to the germs in the post-flood Goulburn River, on whose banks we lived.
My youngest son at about 4 years old actually survived exposure to the germs in the post-flood Goulburn River, on whose banks we lived.

A brief example. When I was growing up (there, I got it in!), kids in rural areas were carted along to all the dances and other functions at The Hall  (Ladies, a plate please, Gentlemen a tie), often only a galvanized-iron shed next to an ant-bed tennis court somewhere east of the black stump. When they could no longer stay awake, the kids collapsed on old cushions and blankets stuffed under the wall-benches. At supper time if the hall was big enough, the kids would have a separate buffet, if not they waited till the adults had got their fill of tea, sandwiches and cake and then were allowed in to clean up the rest.

It was beneficial to both parties. Raspberry vinegar and grubby hands were kept away from best dresses and suits and the adults didn’t have to shout to make themselves heard above the feeding frenzy as ravenous kids devoured the queen pudding, cream sponge and fairy bread. For our part we weren’t bombarded with “wipe your mouth, use a serviette, chew your food before you swallow it, don’t rub mock cream in Jennifer’s hair”. It was far more sensible and civilized. Such supper-hall etiquette had all but disappeared by the late 70s. In its turn, the no-discipline theory was replaced by the doctrine of ‘We should be friends with our children who are, after all, adults in miniature and must have their independence’. The experts were tightening their grip.

When I was a nipper, as I think I’ve said before, kids and grown-ups lived on the same planet, but that’s about all you could say of them. Friends be buggered. Both generations lived under a sort of permanent flag of truce, as long as the rules were observed by both sides. Oh you loved you parents and siblings all right, along with your extended family, but that was in that other, private hemisphere reserved for badly cut legs and big disappointments and broken carts that needed fixing and wanting to know how fast crocodiles could run; reserved for when the dog died, or a relative was in a coffin in the best room of their house and you were afraid that the ghost might come and tap you on the shoulder or, worse still, you just might be called on to be the sin-eater (thank my childhood investigation into the folklore of my Welsh great-grandfather for that one). But on the surface at least it was a fragile peace, easily broken by the injustices of adults or rule infringements by kids. Outside school hours, you were expected to stay out of the house and the adults’ hair. Once you’d done your chores they didn’t want to see you until it was time to sit down to a meal.

I’ve heard it said that even young kids are entitled to the privacy of their own room. Yeah? In the 40s and 50s kids didn’t have private lives, even if you didn’t have to share a room with a sibling. You were left pretty much to your own devices but all the time knowing you were under the scrutiny of Big Brother in the person of any adult within earshot. A grown-up didn’t have to know you to chastise you, that was part of the rules. They could threaten the boot in the backside, even to skin you alive or, worst of all, to “…tell your mother, Sonny Jim and don’t think I don’t know her”. Such threats had to be warranted, the rules allowed for juvenile retribution if they weren’t. All in all the system worked pretty well, armistice reigning most of the time.

It was a given that kids on public transport gave their seat up to an adult – even little kids. It was also a given that the beneficiary would offer to sit you on their lap, Mum or aunty’s lap being occupied with babies or parcels, for the duration of the journey.

Again, it wasn’t all it’s often cracked up to be. Teachers were allowed to cane you – I still maintain that too many ‘six of the bests’ contributed to finger-joint problems that are today beginning to affect my guitar playing – and for the most part the law turned a blind eye to domestic violence and maltreated kids.

But as a kid you accepted your lot. Okay, so you’d broken some stupid school rule and you were up for the cane. So you copped it sweet. That was the rules. You were a kid and you knew your place and you could always hope to get bitten by a norn* and die and that’d learn ‘em. Even as a teenager in full-time paid work, as long as you lived at home you paid ‘board’ to your mother and continued to do chores, the younger kids taking over the ones befitting their place in the pecking order. By then you might also have begun to realise that a Grampa had nightmares because he spent the last of his teenage years in the mind-scarring muck of the Western Front and that your mate’s Dad was only 21 when he copped it in the Middle East, leaving him fatherless and his mum a widow, so you’d grudgingly admit they had some sort of right to control you.

But by then the pursuit of dreams had taken over from simpler pleasures, families were strewn across the country and generational gaps appeared into which fell or were thrown the accumulated folk-wisdom and child-raising skills of numberless generations. Parents were now firmly in the grip of the Experts who maintained that children are really adults but without an adult’s responsibilities.

We believed them, and both kids and adults were to suffer the consequences.

*Norn is the Nyungar word we used for the black colour variant of the tiger snake. Unwilling to move when disturbed, they will often strike before they retreat.

Another place, another life

There was just something about them. This team is carting bagged wheat in the days before bulk handling. It could have been taken any time between the 30s and 50s
There was just something about them. This team is carting bagged wheat in the days before bulk handling. It could have been taken any time between the 30s and 50s

When I was a little kid temporarily living in a Perth suburb, the hours and days were measured and enlivened by horses. Early in the weekday mornings I’d lie awake following the progress of the milk-man by the sound of his horse’s shoes on the road. Clip, clop; clip, clop; then clip-te-clop, as it dragged a toe. The float would stop outside our house and I’d hear the gate open and the soft scuffle of the milkoh’s sandshoes on the path. Then the muted clank as his half-pint measure tapped against our milk billy, followed by the clink of our pennies into the leather bag strapped around his waist. Pad, pad, pad back down the path, the clack of the gate latch and a soft whistle: clip-clop, clip, clop, clip-te-clop, an occasional, soft “Whoa there”, another whistle, and the sound faded away in the pre-dawn, down the street and around the corner.

Two or three days a week we’d see the baker’s cart, one of dozens owned by a large bakery named, with delightful irony, Brown & Burns. Beautifully painted in maroon and gold, wooden wheel spokes and felloes trimmed in the same colors, they were set high off the ground with small wooden doors at the rear of the box body giving way to an interior lined with tin or zinc. The driver stood on a small step at the rear of the cart, looking over the top. Brown and Burns’ horses were all bay or brown half-draughts; quick on the trot, sure-footed – they had to be on the tar roads criss-crossed by steel tram lines –  and intelligent.

The driver’s standard uniform was shorts, sandshoes and a snow-white sleeveless singlet protected by a short canvas apron of pale green. Around his waist was a brown leather bag with compartments for change and a receipt book for those respectable or solvent enough to run a weekly account. The bread was carried in a heavy wicker basket and covered with a sheet of the same material as the apron. No gloves for the driver and no plastic or paper to mask the stomach-tightening, spit-raising smell when he opened the breadbox door or uncovered the basket.

“Bah—aaaker!” and the women and kids would come out of the houses to gather round: “Half a sandwich loaf and a poppy-seed, please.”  “Just a milk loaf thanks, baker.” The driver would whip the loaves from his basket, flirting with the women all the while – a good cartside manner no doubt sold more bread.

“Half a loaf and no stale rubbish, driver.”

“As if I’d sell yesterdee’s bread to someone with those legs!”

“Yer’d sell stale bread to yer own grandma yer cheeky sod…and don’t forget I know ’er!” This from an older woman.

Meantime, the kids would be at the horse end of the cart, slapping the bay’s neck and inhaling the heady tang of salty horse sweat.

There were occasional visits by other hawkers and their horse-drawn carts: a greengrocer; the bottle-oh, collecting scrap and empty bottles; the rabbit-oh, corpses of bunnies, Australia’s scourge, trapped on the outskirts of Perth, Fremantle and further afield dangling from his cart to be skinned on the spot when you bought one. More rarely we’d see a fish-oh, probably an opportunist with a cart who’d bought a surplus from the professional fishermen on the river or at Fremantle, packed them in ice and drove them around the suburbs till they were all gone, the price decreasing as the day drew on.

Once a week the iceman drew up in our street, his insulated van drawn by a big, brown clumper with a nose like the King of China’s silk handkerchief and an inquisitive, bread-seeking upper lip. The blocks were dragged from the icebox onto a board where the iceman – also in shorts, singlet and apron but with a leather pad over one shoulder – expertly broke them into the required size with an icepick. When we could afford them, we could just squeeze two threepenny blocks into our little green and cream ice chest, where it would last almost a week. Everything was green and bloody cream in the 40s, even the enamel water jug in our kitchen. When we didn’t have ice, we used the Coolgardie safe.

Some districts still had “night-soil collection”, as it was delicately referred to by the good aldermen of the time – it was still a fact of daily life in some houses we lived in up to the early 1950s. Two or three times a week the “night cart” would clip-clop down the back alleways, stopping at each dunny. The dunny man would lift the trapdoor at the back of the outhouse and remove the full bucket – galvanized sheet metal reinforced with iron bands – from under the wooden bench seat and replace it with an empty one smelling of the cup or so of Phenyl that sloshed about in it. The full “pan” was emptied through a heavy sliding door near the top of the Nissen Hut-shaped tank on the cart and placed with the other empties in a compartment at the rear.

The dunny man was a legendary figure in my boyhood and we kids even sang a song about him, to the tune of Ghost Riders In The Sky:

The municipal dunny cart was full up to the brim;
The municipal dunny man fell in and couldn’t swim;
And as he was a-sinkin’, a-sinkin’ like a stone,
He heard the maggots singin’: “There’s no-ho place like home”.

All this horse traffic meant occasional deposits of steaming manure – a bonus in the days when vegetable gardens were more common than not. There was a sort of collection roster, unwritten but strictly observed. A tail would lift and whoever was at the top of the roster that day would order a kid away to fetch the spade and bucket. Thup, thup, thup. If the horse was a quiet one, and most were, the treasure would be scooped up almost before it hit the ground

Leggings: Concertinas and workaday “Springsures” similar to those that one of my grand-dads wore.
Leggings: Concertinas and a pair of workaday “Springsures”
similar to those that one of my grand-dads wore.

Among our favourite horses were the police mounts. The WA Mounted kept a stable of bay thoroughbreds for State occasions, but it was the equine proletariat used for crowd and traffic control at footie matches and other really important events that attracted us. Light greys – a colour that set off beautifully the royal-blue saddle blanket with its police crest – leaning towards the military packhorse type: big boned, big footed and broad across the bum but with a nice head and intelligent eye. The kids loved them – if you thought the copper wasn’t watching you could lean against a front leg and feel the horse return the pressure until the trooper pretended to have just noticed what was going on and growl: “That’s enough of that, Sonny Jim. Git orf his leg or ’e’ll step on yer foot.” You and the horse would exchange knowing looks and you’d give him a bit of a pat on the nose so he’d know it wasn’t your fault the camaraderie was broken.

The troopers, or “traps” were also a great favorite of the younger boys, just below their horses, and there was always a lot of jostling to stand in one of the two choicest positions: close to the horse’s head, handy to its silky nose, or by the stirrups where you could cast envious glances at the chrome-plated, government-issue spurs and the much-admired concertina leggings – much flasher than the workaday springsures of the drover – worn by the trooper. A smart rig of blue shirt, black bum-freezer jacket, black peaked cap and light-khaki jodphurs completed the uniform. But it was the spurs and leggings that did it for the boys.

They’ve gone now, the workhorses of the cities and towns, only the police mounts survive. I wonder do kids still rush out into the street to pat their noses and feel their warm, moist breath on their faces, or are their parents too frightened they might catch something? A sense of awe and wonder perhaps?